The First Amendment and Separation of Church and State

Much ado has been risen about Christine O’Donnell’s debate with Chris Coon in which she stated that the separation of church and state is not in the First Amendment, or the US Constitution as a whole:

Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that “religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools.”

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” O’Donnell asked him.

When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O’Donnell asked: “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?”

Her comments, in a debate aired on radio station WDEL, generated a buzz in the audience.

Let the Leftist condescension and hand-wringing begin.

Of course, the kicker is that O’Donnell is right. The First Amendment does not implement a “separation of church and state,” nor does that phrase appear anywhere in the US Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national church, at a federal level, and in fact several States had established churches into the late 1800’s.

Bottom line: the First Amendment was designed to prohibit the funding of a specific church at the national level, and to prohibit the government from banning the practice of any religion. It was intended to protect religion from government, not to force all religious displays out of the public arena.

EM Zanotti at Right Wing News has more:

Does anyone actually read the Constitution anymore? Do we just assume we sort of know what it’s talking about because we’ve seen three episodes of Schoolhouse Rock and a very special episode of Real World: DC where they visited the National Archives and then passed out drunk on the Capitol steps? In this case, both answers are off base, but at least Christine’s seems to indicate a general understanding of applied civics. Chris Coons, as we’ll find out in a second, first heard the word “Constitution” three days ago from his debate prep team.

Look, I was once a law student. I can’t promise that law school attracts the brightest crayons in the drawer, but unless they also missed some sixth grade level social studies, they should know that no where in the Constitution does it explicitly call for a separation of church and state. In subsequent case law, the Supreme Court has found time and again that no such distinct separation exists, and the intermingling of religion and government is, while subject to strict oversight and tight standards, possible, if not increasingly complex. The founders were big fans of secularism, no doubt, the phrase “Separation of Church and State” appears in Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, and we’ve come to have a fairly modern understanding of the role each plays in each and each plays alone. In other words, the “separation” is actually more of a legal concept than it has ever been an explicit maxim.

Warner Todd Huston makes the same points:

In fact the focus on the separation issue is somewhat a historical. The supposed “wall of separation” is not in the First Amendment. It is only mentioned in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 and appears no where else in our founding documents. In fact it doesn’t show up again in our history until the 1940s.

The First Amendment does not employ this separation claim as it is popularly understood in today’s parlance. All the First Amendment says is that Congress cannot make a law establishing a national religion. It says precisely nothing about observing religious practices in government. In fact, this supposed separation issue did not become a national issue until a 1940s era Supreme Court ruling that set that ball rolling.

As Does John R. Guardiano at the American Spectator:

[W]hile O’Donnell may not have been as articulate as she should have been, she’s nonetheless right: The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution. It was penned, instead, by President Thomas Jefferson in a letter that Jefferson sent to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut.

And, as the Heritage Foundation has observed, far from being a “principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state,” Jefferson’s missive, in fact, was “a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was, indeed, a friend of religion.”


The First Amendment was designed to protect religion from governmental interference and obstruction. Today, by contrast, the courts seem intent on protecting the people from religion.

What the Constitution does do explicitly, however, is prohibit a religious test for political office. The Constitution is a secular document in its essence, and advocates and established a secular government. But was not envisioned as being hostile to the expression of religion in any form, even in a public forum.

On the other hand, Coons was bringing up the matter of teaching creationism in schools, and religion in public schools is a tricky subject because of the fact that public educations is not provided for by the US Constitution. So if a religious principle is being taught by a public school, that does seem to offer support to a particular religion via taxpayer monies. But then again, if Coons and the Left are so worried about what the Constitution does or does not allowed for, they might want to consider disbanding the Department of Education.

This focus on O’Donnell seems more intended to divert attention from the fact that Coons didn’t seem to be too aware of just what rights the First Amendment does protect:

O’Donnell was later able to score some points of her own off the remark, revisiting the issue to ask Coons if he could identify the “five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.”

Coons named the separation of church and state, but could not identify the others — the freedoms of speech, press, to assemble and petition — and asked that O’Donnell allow the moderators ask the questions.

“I guess he can’t,” O’Donnell said.

Michelle Malkin highlight’s Coon’s ignorance, as well as the fact that O’Donnell, although not as articulate as Coons, is aware of the function and implications of the Establishment Clause:

It’s obvious from O’Donnell’s very specific challenge to Coons during the debate that she knows perfectly well about the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses in the First Amendment.

It’s obvious that Coons is not only unfamiliar with the rest of the First Amendment, but also that he is wholly unfamiliar with where the phrase “separation of church and state” originated.

Malkin also links to the audio of the radio debate here.


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